When they catch up this weekend in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe will celebrate the deep civilisational links between the two nations before they unveil the contours of a more purposeful strategic partnership in Tokyo on Monday.
That Modi and Abe have developed a personal rapport over the years is well known. Although he could not make Japan his first foreign destination as PM, Modi has kept the essence of his promise that he would attach special significance to ties with Tokyo. His trip to Japan is his first bilateral diplomatic engagement outside the subcontinent.
If Tokyo was disappointed with Modi’s cancellation of his trip to Japan at the last moment a few weeks ago, Abe is making a special gesture now by showing up at Kyoto to host a private dinner for the Indian prime minister. As they push for an ambitious agenda of bilateral cooperation, Modi and Abe are both privileging the past to address the challenges of the present.
For Modi and Abe, widely hailed and rebuked for their unabashed nationalism, the past is not really past. They are actively mobilising the past in pursuit of their current goals. If Modi is leveraging nationalism to reconfigure India’s domestic politics and its external orientation, Abe is determined to end Japan’s post-war antipathy towards nationalism and remake it as a normal state.
As they seek a larger role for their nations in Asia and the world, Modi and Abe know they need each other more than ever before. They are acutely conscious that India and Japan form unique partners for each other amid the current economic and geopolitical flux in Asia.
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They have one common problem, though. Both are burdened with national security bureaucracies that are stuck with mantras of the past and slowing down the prospects for civil nuclear and defence cooperation. Modi and Abe need to press their bureaucracies to quickly wrap up the nuclear negotiations and lay the foundations for a strong defence partnership.
On the economic front, the challenges are more on the Indian side, where Modi must get his domestic act together to take full advantage of the possibilities that have opened up for Japan’s participation in accelerating India’s economic development. On a whole range of issues identified as priorities by Modi — from boosting India’s manufacturing sector to the modernisation of infrastructure, from building high-speed railways to constructing smart cities, from cleaning the Ganga to the development of green technologies — Japan is well placed to become a productive partner.
Modi’s decision to arrive in Kyoto a day ahead of schedule and Abe’s move to meet him there are part of an effort to showcase the historic Buddhist bonds between India and Japan, so visible in Kyoto and Nara, and create a broader public support in both countries for a meaningful strategic partnership. Over the weekend, Modi and Abe are likely to announce a sister city partnership between Varanasi and Kyoto. For preserving the heritage of Varanasi and making it a modern city, Kyoto is a fine place to learn from.
Past and present will also come together in the political engagement between the two leaders in Tokyo. Since he surprised the world by his return to power at the end of 2012, Abe has sought to pull Japan out of extended economic stagnation and re-establish it as a front-ranking power in Asia and the world.
For more than five decades, Japan has been content to rely on the military alliance with the US to ensure its security. It also normalised relations with China when Washington warmed up to Beijing to counter Moscow. But the context has rapidly evolved with the rise of China, its emergence as a great military power, and its intensifying territorial dispute with Japan in the East China Sea. As it worries about Beijing’s new clout, Tokyo is also concerned about America’s ambivalence in the new dynamic between China and Japan.
While the alliance with the US will remain Japan’s security anchor for the foreseeable future, Abe is taking some additional insurance. He is strengthening Japan’s military capabilities and preparing it for a more active security role in Asia and the Indian Ocean. He also wants to build stronger security partnerships with many countries in the region, including US allies like Australia and the Philippines as well as non-aligned nations like India, Vietnam and Indonesia. Abe’s vigorous policies have drawn flak from China. Beijing has charged him with militarism and accused him of trying to overturn the post-war order in Asia. It is into this East Asian minefield that Modi n’s re-emergence as a responsible power in Asia. In the seven decades that have elapsed since the end of World War II, Japan has proved to be a good international citizen, having contributed significantly to regional economic growth, including in China, and promoted political and institutional cooperation in Asia.
Endorsing Japan’s normalisation does not mean Modi will be taking sides between Tokyo and Beijing. Here again, the past offers a sensible guidance for the present. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, argued against treating Japan as a defeated power in the wake of WW II. Nehru also opposed Western attempts to isolate China after the communists won the civil war there in 1949.
Unless both China and Japan are given their legitimate due, Nehru was convinced, Asia will be neither secure nor prosperous. Modi, then, has a strong precedent to pursue good relations with both Japan and China. The PM should strengthen partnerships with Tokyo and Beijing, each on its own merit, and in the process, build up India’s comprehensive national power and make Delhi an indispensable actor in shaping Asia’s future.
The writer, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi, is contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’